Road Trip to Riches
Our man hit the streets in the nation's wealthiest zip codes to learn the secrets of financial success from those who've earned it. Turns out, there are two--just two--keys to wealth. Ready to open the door?
(MONEY Magazine) -- See the What it takes to be rich special report.
Ever drive through a really wealthy neighborhood and wonder how those people got there? Sure, some inherited their way to the top, but once you put aside your initial envy you know that's not true of most of them. These people made it. Imagine if you could just park the car, walk up to a fabulous house, ring the bell and ask the owners for the secrets of financial success.
That's where I found myself one day earlier this year: standing in the driveway of a towering waterfront home in Westport, Conn. (06880). The promised land. I rang. A pretty blond woman, around 50, cracked the storm door. I explained that I was searching for the secrets of success. She stared, shrugged, asked if I was a psycho and bumped the door open with her knee. I walked into a living room filled with white light bouncing off the water. As Carole Reichhelm clutched a coffee mug with both hands, she leaned against her kitchen counter and asked, "Okay, what do you want to know?"
This was the first day of a cross-country tour that had me ringing bells, slipping through gates and cajoling housekeepers over intercoms in five of America's most exclusive zip codes. Most people, of course, didn't want to talk. And I'll never know whether the owners of the large guard dog that chased me down a private road near Reichhelm's place felt like sharing their secrets. My guess is they keep to themselves.
On the other hand, I did enjoy $20-a-glass Chardonnay while chatting with one of the richest women in Paradise Valley, Ariz. (85253) as the sun set over Camelback Mountain. A few weeks later, on St. Patrick's Day, I ate corned beef prepared by a Silicon Valley CEO's private chef (94027). All in all, I walked some 20 miles, rang more than 200 doorbells, almost got run over by three dozen SUVs, and spoke with 23 people who showed me that while accumulating vast sums of money isn't easy, it's a lot more possible than you probably think. Figuring out the lessons in their stories took a good bit of reflection after my tour was done, but here's an overarching observation that will become clear as you follow my travels: The fact that these millionaires were willing to open their doors at all explains a lot about how they got where they are. As for what they had to say, well, these are good people to listen to. I know. I've seen their houses.
LESSON 1 Make Your Own Luck BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. 90210
" One of my most significant encounters, as it turned out, occurred not in a house but in a tiny shop called Mystery Pier Books, down a little alley off Sunset Boulevard. I stopped in to get out of the heat, and inside I found Harvey Jason, the affable British expatriate who owns the place. I told him about my walking tour, and his eyes lit up.
Jason, 66, had a 40-year career as a character actor in television and movies, and he could easily play the part of a soothsayer who lives deep in some medieval forest: He's small and good-natured, with a soft voice that suggests both wisdom and curiosity. (Incidentally, we're cheating a bit here; Jason lives and works a few blocks outside 90210 proper. But we're not holding that against him.)
Jason knows everybody in the business (he's married to Pamela Franklin, who once died on-screen in Brando's arms), but a decade ago he decided that he was ready to ease into a retirement gig. He was in Eureka, Calif., of all places, when he had the revelation, filming Steven Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in which he played a dinosaur tracker. Jason had visited a bookstore and was examining his loot when Spielberg looked over his shoulder. "Steven, I'm going to open a bookstore," Jason told the director. "I'm doing it."
Jason was comfortable, but he didn't want to lose money on a new undertaking. Soon after opening Mystery Pier, he dedicated a corner to books that had been made into films--marrying the two things he was passionate about. He spread the word among that vast network he had built up, and business took off as Hollywood A-listers stopped in for first editions of books that they or their friends had made into movies. Robin Williams, Jude Law and Bono became regulars. When I went in, Jason had everything from a full set of the Harry Potter books signed by J.K. Rowling ($40,000) to Humphrey Cobb's Paths of Glory inscribed by the star of the film version, Kirk Douglas ($6,500). "It was really an inadvertent thing," Jason said of the profitable market niche he had stumbled on. After a moment, he added, "If I made a list of all the things in life I thought were coincidences and then looked back at them, I would see that they weren't coincidences at all."
Exactly. Jason exemplifies the traits that British researcher Richard Wiseman ascribed to lucky people in a 2003 article called The Luck Factor: "They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good." In one experiment, Wiseman asked two groups of people--one who described themselves as generally lucky and one who said they were usually unlucky--to count the photographs in a newspaper. The unluckies spent several minutes flipping through and counting the photos. The lucky people got it in a few seconds. How? On page 2, Wiseman had inserted a message in giant headline type: "Stop counting--There are 43 photographs in this newspaper." The lucky people, always on the lookout for unexpected good fortune, spotted it right away. The unlucky people, whose minds are closed to such signs, missed it completely. Jason would have gotten the message.
LESSON 1, COROLLARY 1 Make Others Lucky Too PARADISE VALLEY, ARIZ. 85253
" Jason's networking success was somewhat accidental--he treated people well because that's his nature, not because he wanted their patronage one day--but he nonetheless built what academics call social capital, according to Stephen Garcia, a social sychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan. "Meeting new people can be a reinforcing mechanism that helps you improve your standing, although that might not be the goal in and of itself," he told me. Four hundred miles away from Mystery Pier Books, I met someone for whom that was very much the goal.
I had been traipsing around Paradise Valley, Ariz. all morning. Sandy dust coated my shoes, and I kept thinking about the TV show I'd seen the previous night in my hotel room about people in the Southwest who find rattlesnakes in their yards. Finally, Kathryn Grosnoff opened the door. Her home was perched high on a corner lot and wreathed with saguaro cacti, mesquite and bougainvillea. She invited me in, assured me that her husband Bob would be glad to talk to me, and went about arranging flowers in the kitchen.
When Grosnoff emerged, sure enough, he seemed just as interested in talking to me as I was in talking to him--giving me the same feeling I'd had when I met Harvey Jason. Grosnoff, 66, who is trim and calm and speaks in neat paragraphs, became a stockbroker near Philadelphia in 1969, not a good time in the stock market. He saw that potential big-money clients--mostly people who had recently sold businesses--were buying certificates of deposit, a sign that they wanted to play it safe. But Grosnoff began selling a better-paying (and nearly as safe) alternative: short-term municipal debt that yielded 7.5% tax-free. Like selling stocks, this entailed hours of cold calling, but the commissions were much lower than for stock sales. "One of the earliest transactions I did was a $5 million order. It took hours and only had a $250 commission, and I only got 28% of that," he said. "The other guys would tease me and ask me why I was spending so long on an order that paid me so little."
But Grosnoff was hoping that when the market eventually picked up, his new clients would remember that he had served up safe tax-free notes when they needed them and would invest in stocks with him when they were ready to do that. His gambit worked. "One day in 1974, a guy who owned a coal mine called me from his plane," Grosnoff recalled. "He said, 'Bob, get out your pencil. I want to buy some stocks.' He started with the As, then the Bs, and he just kept going." After that the guys in the office didn't make fun of Grosnoff anymore.
LESSON 2 Have a Growth Mind-Set WESTPORT, CONN. 06880
" "I don't know if you've ever seen a mill hole," said Arthur Tauck in a voice so deep and gravelly it seemed to come from somewhere under the floor. Tauck, 74, is the chairman of Tauck World Discovery, a travel company his father founded in 1925, and he was explaining a lucrative niche he himself had invented three decades ago. In front of his home, a glistening sandbar sprawled between his seawall and the waters of Long Island Sound. I told him I had never seen a mill hole, and he frowned.
"A mill hole is a hole in a glacier formed by water on the surface," he said. "It can go down 300 feet, and the water running down it looks like when you flush a toilet and see the water spinning around. You throw a rock down a mill hole and you think it's gone, but then after a long minute you hear it hit the bottom. Well, we would take people in their seventies and put a rope around their waist so they could crawl right up to the edge, on their stomach, and look down in the mill hole."
One summer Tauck was helicopter-skiing in the Cariboo Mountains of western Canada when he wondered if anyone used the helicopters and remote mountain lodges during the summer. Turned out, they just sat there. So Tauck partnered with locals to crank up the helicopters and open the lodges, sharing the costs of marketing and staffing. Within months his company began offering tours for elderly people to places they never could have seen without a company like his: glaciers, mountaintops and mill holes. The trips were booked solid for years, and they inspired Tauck to dream up other off-the-beaten-track itineraries. (From his time in the Air Force, he recalled that European road maps had yellow lines indicating less-traveled roads, and today the Yellow Roads of Europe trips are among Tauck's most popular.) His company now offers more than 100 different trips to tens of thousands of travelers each year. When he took over the business, there were 1,200 clients and six trips, none involving yellow roads or mill holes.
Lots of people in the travel business had likely seen those lodges and helicopters, but it took an open mind to come up with the idea of heli-hiking. "I had a vision that people would buy something that was not yet discovered. That was a risk," he said. "Is the 75-year-old spirit still wanting to feel 25 years old? I thought so."
Carol Dweck, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University, studies the connections between people's outlook and their willingness to take risks. "The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life," she writes in her book Mindset, which was published earlier this year. Dweck identifies two types of people: those who have fixed mind-sets and those who have growth mind-sets. People with fixed mind-sets believe that they were born with a certain amount of intelligence, and they strive to convince the world of their brilliance so that no one finds out they're not actually geniuses. Growth-mind-set people believe that intelligence, knowledge and skill need to be "cultivated" by trial and error. Failing at something, they believe, is the best way to ensure they'll succeed at it the next time.
Carole Reichhelm, the woman I met on the first day of door knocking, lives down the street from Tauck and has a similar knack for identifying something people covet--waterfront property, in her case. Westport, a particularly affluent bedroom community on Long Island Sound about 50 miles from Manhattan, is the perfect town for Reichhelm, who has an addiction to beachfront herself. All the waterfront acreage in town was bought up long ago, so Reichhelm looks for it when she travels--especially when she's in a place that hasn't gotten hot yet. "God made only so much waterfront," she said, waving an arm at the brackish waters of Saugatuck Bay outside. "It's not like He's making any more." (Unless that's what this whole global warming thing is about.) She and her husband George bought their 1/10-acre lot in 1983 for $260,000, tore down the A-frame that stood there and built a house. Today, George raises oysters on a little beach out front. "We wouldn't take $2.5 million for this place," she said.
Think all the good, affordable waterfront property in the world is gone? Reichhelm doesn't. She says the trick is not to look where everyone else is looking but to look nearby. Like the best stock investors, she gets in for cheap on lots that aren't overvalued. That way she can scoop up more property for less money, and if a couple of investments flop, the one that doesn't makes up for the rest. Mexico is popular, but not lower Baja, where 100-foot waterfront tracts are selling for $500,000 or less. (She just snagged two.) While the eyes of many speculators have been trained on Gulf Coast deals for months now, Reichhelm looked nearby, snapping up 3.5 acres on the Cossatot River in Arkansas (Arkansas!) for $120,000 while on a road trip. As she put it, "I'm just always looking for the last best place."
LESSON 2, COROLLARY 1 Never Stop Learning ATHERTON, CALIF. 94027
" For a location where so much money is made, Silicon Valley struck me as remarkably friendly. With so many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists running around hoping to hook up and make a fortune together, I guess, everyone appreciates that social capital is a valuable asset. I had called the mayor of Atherton, Charles Marsala, before arriving, a practice I employed in several smaller towns to avoid being arrested. He advised me that his town enforced strict laws against going door to door, but he offered to escort me to meet some prominent Athertonians himself. When I arrived in town, we jumped in his red Ferrari Mondial (because that's what the mayor of Atherton drives), which, I had to admit, beat knocking on doors.
First I met Heidi Roizen, 48, a managing director at Mobius Venture Capital, a Silicon Valley firm with investments in the tech industry of around $2 billion. She's in the business of assessing risk, and I asked her if there are any lessons for the rest of us in the way she examines potential investments.
"Often when you mention risk, what people think of is the downside. Danger. That's not the entrepreneurial mind-set," she said. "The entrepreneurial mind-set is that risk is the heightened probability that there is a big range of possible outcomes."
Losing, she says, is no fun, but it's also essential to winning. When an investment doesn't work out as planned, Roizen analyzes her decision-making process to figure out what went wrong. She compares it to dissecting her performance after she delivers one of her frequent talks to Stanford M.B.A. students (building her network, as you've gathered by now). "I usually spend a half hour telling my husband what went right or wrong," she said. "If I sit and think and talk out loud about what worked or didn't work, that becomes part of my psyche for how I figure out how to do the next lecture. I do the same thing in business."
Dweck, the psychologist who studies growth mind-sets, created an experiment to demonstrate how persistence and the pursuit of knowledge leads to success. She posed a series of trivia questions to a group of people with fixed mind-sets and another with growth mind-sets. After each answer, 1½ seconds passed before the participants were told whether they were right or wrong, and, if they were wrong, another 1½ seconds lapsed before they were given the correct response. Their brains were monitored with electrodes the entire time.
Dweck found that the people with fixed mind-sets cared a lot about whether they were right or wrong but not at all about what the right answer was. The growth-mind-set participants stayed interested until the correct answer was given, showing an interest in learning new information rather than in simply validating their intelligence. When the test was repeated right away, only the growth-mind-set group performed better.
Rich Miletic certainly would have. Marsala and I pulled up in the Ferrari as Miletic was packing for a ski trip with his wife Lisa and their children, but he took a break to talk. As a boy growing up in Chicago, Miletic, now 45, worked maintenance jobs with his father, who had immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in the late 1940s. Mowing lawns and cleaning carpets at apartment buildings around the city, Miletic liked not having a real boss and making small "executive" decisions during his workday. Years later, after earning an M.B.A. by going to night school after work, Miletic set out on a safe, corporate path of sales and marketing work for Honeywell, Motorola and Safco, a company that tests and improves wireless networks. He was good at what he did, but he never forgot those feelings of autonomy and empowerment that he had experienced in his first job.
After a couple of years, Safco asked Miletic to set up a sales office in Hong Kong. He leaped. "I just took my wife and my laptop and went," he said. "I had always had the idea of starting my own company. So this was, for me, a way to do it." The foreign setting, however, made running a start-up office far more challenging than if he had been in Chicago or Silicon Valley. "There was no Best Buy, where you could just go out and get all the computer equipment you needed. There were all these little mom-and-pop shops that you had to find. We didn't even have a business license, so we couldn't get a bank account at first, " he said. But it took only two years for Miletic's fledgling office to tally between $4 million and $5 million in annual sales.
Still, it wasn't his. Miletic is a good networker in a small industry, and he heard about a company very similar to Safco that was for sale in Silicon Valley. He worked it out so that he wouldn't have to front much money, and today he's the owner and CEO of the firm, ZK Celltest. He bought the company in 1996 and planned to sell it after five years but decided to keep building its value instead. His gradual ascension to entrepreneur worked: The Hong Kong adventure gave him valuable practice at being his own boss, but he was backed by the safety of a large company. He could learn by trial and error without crashing too hard. When he finally took over his own shop, he knew what he was doing.
"You have to take risks," Miletic said. "If I never did, I'd still be in Chicago working for Motorola." Instead he's in Atherton--which, according to a list generated for MONEY by demographics research firm ESRI, is the wealthiest zip code in America.
LESSON 2, COROLLARY 2 Calculate Your Risk LAKE FOREST, ILL. 60045
" It is probably no coincidence that of the 23 people who granted me interviews, 14 had started their own business. In a classic study of nearly 3,000 entrepreneurs who had recently become business owners, 81% predicted that their odds of success were seven out of 10 or better, despite being fully aware that statistics put their chances far below that. (A hopeful 33% said their odds were 10 out of 10.) Most of the people I met told me that if you're going to take big risks, you must believe to your core that you're going to succeed. That's no guarantee that you will, of course, but without that faith, your chances are nil.
And yet the more I talked to people, the more I noticed that often the risks they took weren't wild at all. That's true of Miletic, and also of Ron Irvine, 55, whom I met on an overcast day in the leafy Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. He made his fortune by taking a big leap early in his career--but he took a long look first.
By 1987, Irvine had reached a spot in the corporate hierarchy where he could have remained for a long time. He was the director of market planning and research at G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company. It was a comfortable spot with a good salary, but high enough up in the organization that there wasn't much room for growth and promotion. "As a young African-American director, I didn't see a lot of steps ahead of me," he told me, sitting in the plush living room of his neat brick home on a cul-de-sac. "I decided to set my own sails."
He launched Irvine Consulting that year, and within four years he had seven employees and revenue of $2.3 million. Going solo may have seemed rash at the time--he had two young children--but Irvine had accumulated knowledge not only of the pharmaceutical business but of how Searle hired consultants. He knew what corporations were looking for in the outside firms they hired to help with marketing and concept testing. He knew how generously the consultants were paid. And he knew what his colleagues thought of the work they paid for.
"I used to hire consultants," he said. "I had rewritten enough of their reports to know that there were people out there making a living doing this who weren't doing it as well as I could." When he started his own firm, Irvine wasn't exhibiting risky behavior like, say, deciding that because you're a good cook, you're going to put every penny you can get your hands on into a restaurant (a business with a notoriously high failure rate). Rather, it was classic growth mind-set: Recognize an opportunity, weigh the possibility of failure against the chance of success, act accordingly, and reap profits.
That mind-set can create a universe of possibilities in your life: jobs you might land, romances you might encounter, investments you might get a piece of and, quite possibly, fortunes you might make. Either by nature or through practice, those 23 strangers I met across the country were open to new ideas and new people. And so, naturally, they opened their doors.
Priceless advice culled from 3,000 miles worth of interviews
" "Go for the best house you can. People say, 'You're in Beverly Hills! What more could you need?' Well, as you can see, I need some furniture. But you don't get a good return on investing in a dining room set." --JEFF WEISFELD, 43, PRODUCE DISTRIBUTOR AND REAL ESTATE INVESTOR, BEVERLY HILLS
" "The dollar you spend today is the dollar you don't have tomorrow. Sometimes I buy a little gift for myself and then bam!--something comes along where I need just that amount of money and I don't have it. So I've learned not to make purchases I haven't planned for." --MIMI JOHNSON, 44, INTERIOR DECORATOR, WESTPORT, CONN.
" "After I graduated college, I lived with my parents. The first time I bought a building, I could have sold it soon after and bought a house. But I didn't. I still have it. There's this great quote that goes something like, 'If you sell things quickly, you get rich. But if you hold them, you get wealthy.'" --DAVE DOLLINGER, DEVELOPER, 42, ATHERTON, CALIF.
" "My father was a jeweler. I started working for him when I was 12. That experience--taking care of customers--made me realize where the money comes from." --FRANK HEURICH, 73, PRESIDENT, GREGOR JONSSON SHRIMP PEELING SYSTEMS, LAKE FOREST, ILL.
" "There comes a day when you have to decide whether to take the risk in the first place. My dad used to tell a joke about a guy praying to God every day, 'Please let me win the lottery, please let me win the lottery!' And one day God's voice booms down and says, 'Work with me, buddy. Buy a ticket.'" --HEIDI ROIZEN, 48, MANAGING DIRECTOR, MOBIUS VENTURE CAPITAL, ATHERTON, CALIF.
In one experiment, people who said they were unlucky missed a clearly marked, shortcut solution to a problem. The "lucky" ones saw it right away.
People with a growth mind-set believe intelligence and skill aren't inherited but cultivated by trial and error.
$153,000 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
$1,308,000 AVERAGE NET WORTH
$986,000 AVERAGE HOME VALUE
Doors knocked on: 52
Guard dog chases me down a private road
SOURCE: ESRI (esri.com).
Beverly Hills, Calif.
$141,000 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
$1,264,000 AVERAGE NET WORTH
$1,204,000 AVERAGE HOME VALUE
Doors knocked on: 75
Housekeepers encountered: 17
Housewives who waved a dismissive hand in my face: 1
Paradise Valley, Ariz.
$152,000 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
$1,360,000 AVERAGE NET WORTH
$879,000 AVERAGE HOME VALUE
Doors knocked on: 47
Number of times a cruiser drove by my parked rental car very, very slowly: 2
Famous person in line ahead of me at The Breakfast Club restaurant: Derek Jeter
$259,000 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
$1,533,000 AVERAGE NET WORTH
$1,235,000 AVERAGE HOME VALUE
No hoofing it here. The mayor drives me around in his red Ferrari Mondial.
PRIVATE CHEF: What kind of sandwich would you like?
ME: What do you have?
PRIVATE CHEF: What would you like? I bet we have it.
ME: Corned beef on rye, mustard?
PRIVATE CHEF: Coming right up.
Lake Forest, III.
$158,000 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
$1,329,000 AVERAGE NET WORTH
$885,000 AVERAGE HOME VALUE
Doors knocked on: 28
Housekeepers encountered: 0